Those talks involved engaging in a “war game” with Kyiv, the sources said – analytical exercises meant to help Ukrainian forces understand the levels of force they would need to succeed in different scenarios.
Pentagon spokesman Brig. General Pat Ryder told CNN that “the United States maintains a regular multi-level military-to-military dialogue with Ukraine. We will not comment on the specifics of these engagements. Generally speaking, we provide Ukrainians with information for help better understand the threats they face and defend their country against Russian aggression.Ultimately, the Ukrainians make the final decisions for their operations.
Officials say they believe there is now increased parity between the Ukrainian and Russian military. But Western officials have been reluctant to label the nascent Ukrainian operation – which appeared to begin Monday in the southern province of Kherson – a genuine “counter-offensive”.
How well Ukraine will succeed in regaining lost territory remains an open question, sources familiar with the latest intelligence told CNN. Ukrainian officials have previously said that this offensive is likely to be a slow operation, and an extremely cold winter is coming, then a mud in early spring, both of which could force pauses in the fighting.
Still, there is a distinct sense among U.S. and Western advisers to Ukraine that Ukraine’s military is on a par with Russia than was thought just a few months ago, said several officials at CNN. Russia still maintains superior numbers in terms of overall manpower and mass artillery.
But Ukrainian capabilities, bolstered by sophisticated Western weapons and training, have filled an important gap, officials say — particularly the High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, or HIMARS, which Ukraine has used to launch rockets. attacks behind Russian front lines in recent months.
“It shows you what sustained training and the provision of weapons can do when the force is highly motivated and capable in its employment,” a senior NATO official told CNN.
Another US military source put it more bluntly: Ukraine has offset Russia’s advantage in the volume of fire with its “competence”.
A growing momentum
Ukraine has publicly signaled for months that it intends to launch a major counteroffensive to retake territory lost to Russia in the six-month war. And even before Monday, when Ukrainian forces began to intensify their rocket and artillery missile fire on front lines in southern Ukraine, Kyiv had actively disrupted Russian resupply efforts and command and control. control in the region.
For weeks, Ukraine has used a mixture of partisan partisans, long-range fire and special operations forces to launch a series of attacks far behind Russian lines – including in Crimea – that have targeted centers logistics and command and control in preparation for the southern offensive.
“I don’t think it is yet possible to confirm the extent of the Ukrainian advances, but they have certainly had an impact on Russia’s ability to move north and south through [the Dnieper River] with their attacks on bridges,” the senior NATO official said on Wednesday. “And in terms of future prospects, I would note that Ukraine is much closer to parity in troop numbers in Kherson than it has not been in recent weeks” in the country’s eastern provinces, where fighting has been going on for months.
Attacks in Crimea were a particularly smart strategy, an official said, as Russia uses the peninsula as a launching pad for its operations in southern Ukraine.
Russia has also been forced to withdraw resources from the east “simply because of reports that the Ukrainians may be more offensive in the south,” National Security Council communications coordinator John Kirby said Monday.
“And so they had to wear down some units… in some areas of eastern Donbass, to respond to what they clearly thought was an imminent threat of a counter-offensive,” Kirby said.
A more limited mission
US and Ukrainian sources told CNN that earlier plans for the Ukrainian operation were initially broader and involved a more ambitious effort to regain other territories lost to the Russian invasion over the past six months, including the city of Zaporizhzhia, in the southeast of the country.
But on Monday, Ukrainian officials appeared laser-focused on taking over the Kherson region.
An administration official told CNN that in recent months Ukraine has asked the United States for weapons specifically tailored to its planned counteroffensive in the south. The United States has met many of these requests – including additional ammunition, artillery and javelins – during several presidential withdrawal assistance programs provided to Ukraine over the past two months. the manager said.
The planning exercises also helped the United States better understand what kind of equipment, munitions, or intelligence it could offer that would be most useful to Ukraine. During the war, the United States regularly provided Ukraine with military advice and intelligence, as well as billions of dollars in equipment and weaponry.
“A slow operation to crush the enemy”
Officials say Ukraine now appears more equal with Russian forces, not only because of the advanced Western weaponry that Ukraine uses effectively, but also because the Ukrainians still have the upper hand in terms of morale, unit cohesion, tactical sense and a superior. ability to improvise on the fly.
They also have another advantage, two officials said: a population widely appalled by the Russian occupation and willing to engage in partisan attacks to drive them out, such as assassinations and attempted sabotage behind enemy lines.
Yet despite a more optimistic assessment of Ukrainian combat capabilities, US officials are not betting that Ukraine will succeed in retaking Kherson – yet.
“I’m not sure it’s going to be the big, massive counter-offensive that people might expect – it might be a smaller number of forces,” the US military source warned. Everything will depend on Russia’s ability to defend the newly claimed territory, the source said – something it has yet to be called upon to do in the past six months.
A Ukrainian presidential adviser also warned that the offensive would be a “slow operation to crush the enemy”.
“This process will not be very quick,” said Oleksiy Arestovych, adviser to the chief of staff of the Ukrainian president, in a statement posted on his Telegram account on Monday evening, “but will end with the installation of the Ukrainian flag on all settlements from Ukraine.”